Christian had a smile that was absolutely genuine, while simultaneously a defense. The smile would grow whenever we would get closer to his vulnerability. A young, African American man in his early 30s, he was a gifted rising star in the finance world where people were constantly asking him for advice, time, and help, and I had never seen him decline once.
“Josh, I can’t keep doing this,” Christian decreed. “And I’m pissed Josh, I’m pissed! I really think I need like, two weeks of nothing. I mean I can’t, for a bunch of reasons I can’t. But I want two weeks where I don’t have to do anything, listen to anyone, and I can just read and figure my s**t out.”
“Christian, question,” I said, and he shook his head. Not at me but at the overwhelming life he had cornered himself into.
“This is nuts,” he said. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know I’m talking a lot, but how do people do this?! How do you become successful without killing yourself and grinding yourself down to an effing nub!”
“So, your Dad,” I said. Christian got the same look on his face that I imagine Van Helsing gets when someone mentions Dracula. “Your Dad, Christian. Growing up, if you ever said no to your—”
He extended his hand into the space between us, cutting me off right there. “Yeah, that never… I never even would’ve tried to… there’s no way of that possibility, saying ‘no’ to him, was never allowed to even exist.” And then he stared at me. Surprised at the non-smiling vulnerability he had allowed himself to just walk into.
Since the early 1900s, the quote “Work and love, love and work—that’s all there is. Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness,” has been attributed to Freud, and therapists have been citing it ever since. Yet, as much as therapists have drawn from this phrase to explain what makes for a meaningful life, the two ingredients of this quote have not been equally represented.
To say that psychotherapy has the ability to aid in the growth of our relationships, or lack thereof, is pretty much a “yeah, duh” statement. From early Kleinian object relations to Sue Johnson’s modern-day attachment-based EFT, it has been understood that the consultation room is a place where we can explore how our own psychology may be getting in the way of the connections we so deeply crave. The idea that our earliest formative relationships play a crucial role in our “blueprint for love” in adulthood, sounds like psychology 101. This is probably why therapists, generally speaking, do not shy away from aiding in the growth of Freud’s cornerstone of humanness, love.
Yet the same cannot be said for work. David Deida, spiritual teacher and author, said “no one tells [people] they will make ten times as much money if they learn how to breathe deep, look people in the eye, and know why they’re alive,” speaking about the connective tissue between our inner lives and our careers. However, this kind of intrapsychic work is a rarity, and therefore psychotherapy is rarely considered a viable tool to help grow our work in the same way as our love.
This is not to say that jobs, careers, finances, and the like do not come up during therapy—quite the opposite. However, all too often the therapeutic work done in these areas is only about coping with whatever pain is being caused. The therapist rarely invests in the growth of work, in the same way that they are known to invest in the growth of love. The psychological understanding that is a prerequisite for mastering our relationships is almost never considered when it comes to mastering a career. The end result of this seems to be one of the cornerstones of our humanness, remaining seemingly untouched by therapists.
A quick Google search for “relationship expert,” shows that the vast majority are psychotherapists that have branded themselves as such. However, Google “career expert,” and it is something different entirely. A hodgepodge of different people offering career help, none of them therapists. The takeaway there is that relationships need psychology but career needs… something else. Perhaps an action or a “to do"? And at some point, it might. But not before the deep inner work is done that gives our work the same psychological reverence as our love. So many of the feelings we are after can come from the deep fulfillment that comes from the therapeutic work on work.
“Christian, could you feel that just now?” I asked. “It was so slight, but you had a moment where you felt what it would have been like to say ‘no’ to dad...”
“And then you backed away from it.”
Christian sat and paused, shaking his head at the difficulty he felt himself coming up against.
I continued, “Because it was really damn scary. Saying no to your father was not an option because the results would have been really frightening. And the good news, Christian, is you learned how to survive your house. As much as you have achieved so far, and it’s impressive, it has all been in survival mode. One of the painful things about trauma is that the ways in which we learn to survive eventually start eating us from the inside out. Regardless of how much we accomplish or achieve. Aggressive trauma, in the way that you experienced it, breaks down our internal walls, and makes us feel profoundly unsafe. And so, for you, the higher the pressure of the situation, the more terrifying it feels for you to say no. The next step in your career is no longer about achievement, it is about your fulfillment. And that ain’t going to come from saying yes. It is only going to come from us building up those walls that were torn down a long time ago.”
Christian sat, thinking about all he had just heard. “You have no idea how much I want to be able to do this. Everything I want is on the other side of being able to tell all these people no,” he said. We both shared a smile. It didn’t feel easy, but we were exactly where we needed to be.